Blasts from the Past: The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi (2005)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

I remember being pitched Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl back in 2005 when I was the reviews editor for Waterstone’s Books Quarterly. There was a story attached to this novel, the kind publicists’ dreams are made of. It was written in secret in a whirlwind seven months while Oyeyemi was a schoolgirl, studying for her A levels. She signed a two-book contract on the day she got her results and is now a celebrated author. Unsurprisingly there was a good deal of hype around Oyeyemi’s debut which can so often result in disappointment but not with this one.

Jessamy Harrison is a frightened, lonely little girl afflicted with panic attacks. After a particularly disturbing episode, her parents take her to meet her mother’s family in Nigeria. Here Jess finds herself drawn to the old servants’ quarters where she meets the mysterious Titiola, or TillyTilly as Jess decides to call her. Emboldened by TillyTilly, Jess becomes more confident. When the family returns home Jess is bereft but TillyTilly has followed her. All sorts of strange and unexplained events occur, gradually becoming more sinister as TillyTilly ‘gets’ all those who threaten or hurt Jess. But TillyTilly wants something in return and Jess finds herself desperately trying to escape the strange little girl who invades her life, her dreams and even herself.

I commissioned Lesley Glaister to review The Icarus Girl, herself no slouch when it comes to scaring her readers silly. She ended her review with this: ‘I was actually trembling when I put it down and had to keep the light on all night. I think it’s the most haunting and disturbing novel I’ve ever read.’

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

17 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi (2005)”

  1. What a great idea for a series of posts! I find it very interesting to re-read things that I enjoyed many years ago to compare my reactions/assessments to them over time. Since I generally pick things I read as a teenager, my assessment in later life isn’t usually this positive!
    Helen Oyeyemi is one of those writers I’ve been meaning to read since she first surfaced a decade or so ago (like Tolkien’s Ents, I tend to take my time!); in fact, I now have Gingerbread lurking on my TBR pile. You’ve made this one sound so enticing, however, I may begin with it. . . . .

    1. Delighted to hear that! This blog tends to be all about the shiny and new so it’s easy to forget the books that captivated me back in the day. You’re right about rereading, though. Not always a happy experience although sometimes a revealing one.

    1. Extraordinary, isn’t it, even without the knowledge that she must have been seventeen or eighteen while writing it. I’d say it’s still my favourite but I’d recommend Mr Fox.

  2. I still haven’t tried Oyeyemi. I’ve wondered if she’d be a good author to read for book club, or if people would be too put off by magic realism. Is there one of her books you’d say is most accessible? (With apologies if I’ve asked this before; I can’t remember if it’s you I’ve discussed Oyeyemi with before!)

    1. Me, neither, but my pandemic brain is beginning to forget what day it is so it may have been me! You might like to try Mr Fox if this one doesn’t appeal. I think that would make an interesting book club choice.

  3. Glaister’s comment makes me wonder whether I should reread this one; I just don’t remember being that profoundly disturbed. More, unsettled? Maybe I was reading too many horror novels at the time. (FWIW, Glaister is another of my MRE authors, but I am terrifically behind.)

    1. I found it profoundly creepy but I don’t read much in the way of horror which may explain my reaction.

      I’m so pleased to hear that about Glaister, one of those sadly overlooked writers.

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